'May the last voice you hear be mine': Seeing Sinatra with my father

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Frank Sinatra at a Capitol Records session. Seventeen years after his death, his recordings remain as ageless as ever. (Photo: Universal Music Group)

The other night, I got a text from a friend who was engaged in a barroom discussion before Lucinda Williams' show at Theater of Living Arts on South Street. It was a greatest-concerts-ever debate, and the question was this: What are the three best shows you've ever seen?

Hmmm . . . I might have to mull that one for a while. I have an answer at the ready for #1: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at the Spectrum in South Philadelphia on Dec. 9, 1980. It was the night after John Lennon was murdered, and also the night after I had seen Springsteen for the first time. I could go on and on about it and, in another column, probably will.

But this column isn't about the best shows I've ever seen, and it's not about Springsteen, either.

Rather, it's about how that question got me thinking about the shows I wish I could live through all over again, which is something different. That brings me to a different guy from New Jersey, who would have been 100 on Dec. 12 if he had turned out to be as truly indomitable in the flesh as his music often made him sound. A guy who, as Springsteen once put it, had "a voice filled with bad attitude, life, beauty, excitement, a nasty sense of freedom, sex, and a sad knowledge of the ways of the world."

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, The Voice himself: Frank Sinatra.

I don't think I would put any of the times I saw Sinatra perform live before he died in 1998 in the best-shows-I-ever-saw category. They were all toward the back end of a storied career. Other competitors for those honors might be the Clash at Bond's International Casino in New York in 1980, or Nirvana at JC Dobbs in 1991, or maybe even cult soul-man Darondo at SXSW in 2008.

Then again, it could even be Titus Andronicus doing a Free at Noon at World Cafe Live last month or maybe Stevie Wonder at the Wells Fargo Center just the other week. It's hard to compare apples and oranges, or recent super-immediate experiences with older ones that have either faded from memory or taken on mythic stature in retrospect.

Besides, I'm really not crazy about the idea of looking back and reveling in legendary shows of the past. The whole point of going to see live music is built on the stubborn hope that something magical might be in the cards, or, as Sinatra sang on the 1964 album It Might As Well Be Swing, in a song written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, while accompanied by Count Basie & His Orchestra, under the direction of Quincy Jones: "The Best Is Yet to Come."

So when the question came up, I didn't think of any of those shows I mentioned above. Instead, I immediately flashed on the times my father took my mother and brother and me (and, usually, a larger posse) to see Sinatra in Atlantic City after casino gambling came to town in 1978 - "Always sitting right up front," as my mother recalled the other day - and the Chairman returned to his old stomping grounds to play Resorts International just up the Boardwalk from where I grew up in Ventnor.

Those nights - at Resorts, and later the Golden Nugget and the Sands - flashed partly because I've been on a Sinatra jag lately, sampling various Ol' Blue Eyes products flooding the marketplace to capitalize on the centennial of the man who was fond of raising Jack Daniels with the toast: "May you live to be 100, and may the last voice you hear be mine."

This year, a box called The Ultimate Sinatra came out that kicks off with the tender 1939 recording "All or Nothing at All." That song is also the title of Alex Gibney's excellent two-part documentary that ran this year on HBO. It's a tidy summation, and revisiting Sinatra's recordings with Capitol from the 1950s, particularly those with arranger Nelson Riddle, always makes for a sublime experience.

I've also been dipping into The Chairman, the 900-page second volume of James Kaplan's biography. Not sure I'm going to like it as much as my favorite Sinatra books - Pete Hamill's slim 1998 Why Sinatra Matters and Will Friedwald's authoritative 1997 Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art - but it seems to be the exhaustively researched, fair-minded bio that Kitty Kelley's unauthorized His Way certainly was not.

One more box to look forward to, due out Nov. 20: A Voice on Air (1935-1955) collects radio broadcasts from the early stages of his career, reaching back to his beginnings with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey during the rapid ascent in which the skinny kid from Hoboken sent bobby-soxers into ecstasy in a teenage ritual that would be repeated by fans of everyone from the Beatles to One Direction.

CBS will also pay tribute to Sinatra with a TV special on Dec. 6, featuring the likes of Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, Alicia Keys and John Legend, Adam Levine, Carrie Underwood, and Usher.

All this stuff keeps Sinatra alive 17 years after his death. As does Sid Mark, the Philadelphia DJ who has had a Sinatra-and-only-Sinatra program on the air without interruption, astonishingly, since 1957.

Promos that run during Sundays with Sinatra on WPHT-AM (1210) play up the familial eternalness of Sinatra, by turns cocky with the world on a string and soulfully communicating a depth of despair, in the wee small hours of the morning. "Your grandfather listened, your mother listened," a smooth female radio voice reminds you. "And now you listen."

I do. And I do partly because my father did before me, and I can't listen to Sinatra without thinking about him. He was lucky enough to see shows with my mother at the 500 Club, the Skinny D'Amato-owned nightclub back when Atlantic City was riding high in April, before getting shot down in May, again and again.

"That's Life" and "My Way" on the jukebox in dark bars in the afternoon; cruising around in his Chrysler LeBaron with Sinatra at the Sands, the Basie band swinging hard, cranked up on the cassette deck; those are some of my strongest memories of my father.

Sinatra was a master, among other things, of middle-age male sentimentality. So many of the great saloon songs - "Angel Eyes," "One for My Baby" - are imbued with regret, considering what has been lost while gazing into the bottom of a glass. Sometimes, the singer looks back with a willful optimism, reassuring himself "It Was a Very Good Year," but there's always darkness lurking.

My dad's been gone since 1990, almost 25 years now. If I had a musical time machine, I wouldn't put myself back in some epic four-hour Springsteen show or see any of the acts that were gone before I could catch them, like Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley. (Howlin' Wolf would be on the top of that wish list.)

Instead, I'd be back from a second time around at the Superstar Theater at Resorts, to see Sinatra take the stage with a kick in his step, in a tux, with a big band blaring behind him, opening, as I remember it, with "You Make Me Feel So Young." I'd be listening closely, but my attention wouldn't be fixed on the silver-haired Chairman of the Board. I'd be looking at the smile on my father's face.

ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628@deluca_dan